A bishop of consequence

George Weigel

When I first met Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., more than twenty years ago, I was struck by his boyish demeanor, his exquisite courtesy, and his rock-solid faith. Then the bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, a diocese that serves several reservations, Chaput was obviously proud of his Potawatomi heritage without wearing his roots, so to speak, on his sleeve. Moreover, his striking modesty and personal gentleness exemplified the Franciscan vocation he had embraced. Here, I thought, is a real pastor, living out the meaning of his episcopal motto, “As Christ loved the Church.”

He was also a lot of fun. It was no easy business to return service in the rapid-fire repartee led by our host that night, then-Msgr. Timothy Dolan. But Chaput played the rhetorical baseline like a pro.

A few years after we met, he was named archbishop of Denver. And for the next fourteen years, I watched in admiration as Archbishop Chaput led what was, in many people’s judgment, the premier New Evangelization diocese in the country. He was always the bottom line. But he governed the archdiocese in a genuinely collegial manner, which is one reason he drew many highly talented lay collaborators to Denver. No one who knew him doubted that he would have happily spent the rest of his life in the Mile High City.

In 2011, however, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was in grave trouble, and Archbishop Chaput accepted the unenviable task of fixing what had become a serious mess, financially and otherwise. To agree to that transfer was an act of fidelity and courage by a man who loved his current job and had zero interest in what might once have been thought a “promotion.” Yet when Pope Benedict asked him to do it, Chaput agreed. I thought then, and think now, that perhaps no other bishop in the country could have turned the Philadelphia situation around as Archbishop Chaput did. Pope Francis’s highly successful visit to Philly in 2015 was all to Chaput’s credit – although, typically, he publicly shared the credit with others.

Immediately after the papal visit, Chaput, who had been elected by his American brother bishops to Synod-2015, spent almost a month in Rome, where his qualities were quickly recognized by the world episcopate. After hearing him and watching his work as one of the Synod discussion-groups’ secretaries, Archbishop Chaput drew the largest vote to the Synod General Council among the elected North American Synod delegates, in an open ballot that some wags refer to as the “Iowa caucuses.” It was a striking compliment.

Archbishop Chaput has just published his third book, Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World (Henry Holt). Like any sensible person, Chaput knows that the United States is living through a season of profound moral and cultural turbulence – turbulence that threatens to unravel the American democratic experiment. Yet for all his penetrating analysis of how the United States came to its present season of discontent, Strangers in a Strange Land is, finally, a hopeful book: a point that eluded reviewers whose familiarity with the actual text seems rather slight. Thus the archbishop closes on this note:

“The Word of God testifies to the goodness of creation, the gift that is life, and the glory of the human person. With this glory comes a duty. We are born for the City of God. The road home leads through the City of Man. So we are strangers in a strange land, yes.

“But what we do here makes all the difference.”

For years, I was angered by the vicious caricature of Archbishop Charles Chaput as a dour, stridently orthodox, rigid culture-warrior: a calumny that dominates certain circles of portside Catholic commentary, here and elsewhere. But I’m no longer angry at the poor souls who continue to treat Archbishop Chaput as an ideological punching bag or dismiss him as a pre-Pope Francis bishop. Rather, I feel sorry for them. If Charles Chaput does not embody the spiritual and pastoral qualities the Pope says he values in bishops, no one does. Those who continue to miss that truth, here and elsewhere, are to be pitied for having failed to appreciate an admirable human being, a man of God, and a great churchman.

Photo by Javier de la Flor | CNA

COMING UP: Remembering John Paul the Great: Three new books

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When teaching college students a few years ago, I was shocked when I asked my students to tell me what they knew about Pope St. John Paul II. It wasn’t much. We went on to read George Weigel’s definitive biography of John Paul, Witness to Hope (Harper Perennial, 2004), and the students were blown away by the greatness and compelling life of the Pope. The class made me realize how quickly the memory of even monumental figures can fade away if we do not work deliberately to continue their legacy.

The first place to begin “getting to know” John Paul better would be Weigel’s biography, mentioned above, along with the sequel, The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (Random House, 2010). In addition, I would recommend John Paul’s interview book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (Knopf, 1995) and his trilogy of greatest encyclicals: Fides et Ratio, Evangelium Vitae, and Veritatis Splendor. The great Pope left us an enormous legacy of writings to explore, but especially relevant now are his “Letter to Families,” Familiaris Consortio (an exhortation on the family), and the Theology of the Body.

For those looking go deeper in their knowledge of John Paul, three new books can help us to remember and continue his great work for the renewal of Church and society.

George Weigel, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II (Basic Books, 2017)

The final volume of a tryptic of the Pope, Weigel provides a memoir of his interactions with John Paul and an account of how he became his biographer. For those who love Witness to Hope, Weigel provides a fascinating account of how the book came about, tracing his work within the Vatican, Poland, and across the world. It narrates his own story as seminarian, lay theology student, writer, and his activity in politics, including writing speeches for a leader of the pro-life movement in Congress. His work caught John Paul’s attention, especially his book chronicling the Church’s role in the fall of Communism, The Final Revolution. Weigel gives testimony to the providence that prepared him to write John Paul’s biography and the friendship they developed in their common witness to the hope that comes from Christ.

Paul Kengor, The Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century (ISI, 2017)

This book traces not only the remarkable working friendship of Regan and John Paul, but narrates the entire story of the struggle between European Communism and the Church. Surprisingly, the book’s common thread comes from Our Lady of Fatima, predicting Russia’s errors and uniting the faithful in prayer, as well as guiding not only John Paul but also Reagan. The two men recognized their providential role in what Reagan called the Divine Plan to end Communism in Europe. Portraits of many other key characters (on both sides) emerge: Stalin, Pope Pius XII, Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Gorbachev. Kengor presents extraordinary connections between the two figures: both were actors, deep men of prayer, survived assassination attempts only months apart, and played key leadership roles in the world. The book presents ground breaking research to make a compelling and undeniable case that the two great men worked together closely and succeeded in bringing freedom to Eastern Europe.

Pope St. John Paul II/Karol Wojtyła, In God’s Hands: The Spiritual Diaries 1962-2003 (Harper One, 2017)

This book gives us inside access to John Paul’s prayer life by presenting notes of his regular retreats from his time as a bishop through most of his papacy. It’s somewhat misnamed, as the book consists in his notebooks responding to the retreat material, not a normal diary. It reinforces what we know about the Pope: his strong focus on the Eucharist, his Marian spirituality of uniting our intentions to her fiat, and his concern as a bishop for the evangelization of his people. There are many gems, such as the following: “The most appropriate effects of the redemption in the human being are deeds that stem from it – deeds that through Mary are rooted in Christ, through one’s belong it Her, and that are simultaneously in accordance with Christ’s law, with His gospel” (10). The book will not disappoint those looking to enter more deeply into the spirituality of John Paul.